While decision-makers waver on whether a toxics reduction strategy will be included in the new Bay Agreement, citizens can act to keep pharmaceuticals out of waterways and the Bay by participating in National Drug Take-Back Day on Oct. 26.

Russ Baxter, Chesapeake Bay Coordinator for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s water quality goal implementation team, said that the team, which includes representatives from all the Bay jurisdictions, could not achieve consensus on toxics. As a result, an ad-hoc committee was formed in May 2013 to work specifically on recommendations regarding the inclusion of a toxics strategy.

The January 2013 report, Toxic Contaminants in the Chesapeake Bay and its Watershed, issued by the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and EPA, listed 10 categories of toxic contaminants found in more than 70 percent of Chesapeake rivers and the Bay. The report characterized pharmaceuticals as “extensive in the watershed,” though it noted that data gaps prevent a complete understanding of the potential adverse impacts on fish and wildlife and the severity of the threat in the watershed.

Pharmaceuticals enter waterways from human waste, the wastes of animals treated with hormones and antibiotics, runoff from biosolids (treated sewage sludge) applied on agricultural fields, and when they are flushed down drains.

But most state monitoring programs do not test for pharmaceuticals in waterways, nor the presence of pharmaceuticals in drinking water.

What little is known does not bode well for streams. The 2013 report cites numerous studies that reveal that neither “conventional” wastewater treatment plants nor septic systems are effective at removing pharmaceuticals from effluent that is discharged into waterways. Upgrades to wastewater plants are possible, but expensive.

The combined effects of pharmaceuticals with other “contaminants of concern” is even more unknown.

Efforts to have more stringent requirements for toxics included in the renewed Bay Agreement, which is due to be signed in late 2013, have been stalled by concerns that specific toxics strategies would divert attention, and precious resources, away from the Bay TMDL’s focus on reducing nutrients and sediments.

Meanwhile, around the Bay — and the nation — police stations, local governments and pharmacies continue to offer Take-Back Drug events to encourage the proper disposal of prescription and over-the-counter medications.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is coordinating the seventh National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day in October and predicts that this year’s take will exceed the previous event last spring.

The April 27, 2013, Take-Back Day yielded 50 percent more pills than the previous event, with 742,497 pounds of medications collected from sites all over the United States.

“If people are concerned about privacy, they can just put the medications in a sandwich bag, drop it in the box, and walk away,” said Rusty Payne, spokesperson for DEA. He stressed that the authorities have no interest in those who are dropping off the drugs. They just want to discourage disposal in toilets and the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs.

For those who wonder the fate of the collected drugs, Payne says that they are taken to EPA-approved waste facilities to be incinerated.

The Bay Program’s ad hoc committee will forward two recommendations to the Principals’ Staff Committee for deliberation at its Sept. 24 meeting (just as the Bay Journal goes to press). The first focuses on implementing practices “to reduce the loadings of persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT) contaminants and non-PBT contaminants that have a likely effect on the ecosystem resources.”

The second is to “improve the knowledge of the effects of contaminants of emerging concern on the health of fish and wildlife so future strategies can be considered,“ in other words, more research and monitoring of the wide range of toxics, including pharmaceuticals. Even these recommendations were not unanimously endorsed by all jurisdictions.

Baxter said there is no denying that toxics, including pharmaceuticals, are causing problems. But he said that, in these post-recession years, staffing levels at the state agencies and resources overall are barely adequate to address the Bay TMDL requirements to reduce sediment and nutrients.

Scott Phillips, hydrogeologist for the USGS and one of the authors of the 2012 report said, “It’s unfortunate that there is pushback on including toxics in the new agreement. We are trying to improve the living resources in the Bay. Toxics are a known problem.

“I think that some jurisdictions feel that they do not have the resources in place. That’s why drug Take-Back Drug programs are so important. We can do something.”

How to get rid of unwanted medications

Looking for a place to dispose of expired or old prescription or over-the-counter medicine? Take advantage of these upcoming events coordinated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration:

  • To find a location for disposing of drugs on Oct. 26, visit www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/drug_disposal/takeback/
  • To find medication disposal programs at local independent community pharmacies, visit DisposeMyMeds.org.
  • To learn about SMARXT DISPOSAL™, a public awareness campaign partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, American Pharmacists Association, and Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, visit http://smarxtdisposal.net/.
  • If there is no medicine take-back program in your area, follow these FDA guidelines for the proper disposal of prescription and OTC drugs in household trash: Mix medicines (do NOT crush tablets or capsules) with an unpalatable substance such as kitty litter or used coffee grounds; place the mixture in a container such as a sealed plastic bag; and throw the container in the household trash. Before throwing out an empty pill bottle or other empty medicine packaging, scratch out all information on the label to make it unreadable.

To read the report “Toxic Contaminants in the Chesapeake Bay and its Watershed: Extent and Severity of Occurrence and Potential Biological Effects,” visit: http://executiveorder.chesapeakebay.net/ChesBayToxics_finaldraft_11513b.pdf.